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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie November 2005

Remember, remember, the 1st of November! I shall, as it was a great meeting, and had the added bonus of a viewing session at Culloden after the tea break. Those who did not wish to come up to view the sky continued their discussions about binoculars and other matters. Add to that some hardware viewing, in the form of massive binoculars and a massive eyepiece, and it was virtually the perfect meeting! To wet our appetites for the treats to come, Chairwoman Pauline made the following announcements to open the meeting:

  • Science Festival Info. Tickets are now available for the various events of this month’s Science Festival! On the evening of Thursday 10th, at the Universal Hall, Findhorn, there will be two talks by Scottish researchers exploring the nature of light in its quantum state and its applications.

7.30-8.30pm ‘Does God Play Dice?’ - Prof. Miles Padgett of Glasgow University marks the Einstein anniversary year of Physics with an introduction to the mysteries of the quantum world.

9.00-10.00pm ‘Tripping The Light Fantastic’ - From spinning beams to optical tweezers, Prof. Kishan Dholakia of St. Andrews University describes and demonstrates new applications of the quantum properties of light. Price to members £2, non-members £3.

On the evening of Friday 11th at the Community Hall, Burghead:

7.30-8.15pm ‘Burghead And Beyond’ - Prof. Ian Ralston of Edinburgh University fits the great fort on the promontory into the greater world of Pictish culture and beyond.

8.45-9.30pm ‘The Picts And The Planets’ - Howie Firth explores a new astronomical interpretation of the mysteries of the Pictish builders of Burghead, and their symbols with Music by Saut-Herrin. Price £3 to everyone.

Saturday 12th sees the public open day at Horizon Scotland in Forres, open from 10.00am until 4.00pm. There will be talks and images of the night sky from HAS, SIGMA, and the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, plus remote operation of the Faulkes Telescope in Hawaii, and other hands-on activities. Price to members and children in full-time education £2; Primary children and younger FREE; non-members £3.

Don’t be put of by the Physics content, as the speakers are used to speaking to the general public. If you missed the meeting, and would like to buy tickets for these events, please contact Pauline. Please also let your friends and relatives know- this may be just the event to spark an interest in science and astronomy!

  • Observing Sessions. I can only hope the observing sessions arranged for November will be as good as the little session we had at Culloden Observatory after the main presentations and tea-break on Tuesday night! Great sky, lots of guests; ideal! There is no session on Saturday 5th, as there will be fireworks going off to celebrate a failed overthrow of the government. I suppose it is just possible that there may be fireworks going off to celebrate a successful overthrow of the government, but I doubt it… These observing events do depend on the weather cooperating. If you are in doubt as to whether they are going ahead, please contact the person in charge before 7.30pm on the night, or on their mobile after 8pm.

Friday 25th November - Pauline
Saturday 26th November - Rob
Friday 2nd December - Antony
Saturday 3rd December - Trina

  • Sky at Night Even Better Value! Sky at Night magazine has offered a 28% discount on their yearly subscription rate! Take advantage of the offer and you will receive 12 issues for £36.70, a saving of £14.30! Pauline has the relevant forms for this, so please contact her to take advantage of this offer, or you can also sign up by visiting the Sky at Night Magazine website.
  • Aurora over the PPARK. Since reading an article which expressed doubt as to whether the UK would be best served by supporting the ESA’s Aurora programme, Pauline has contacted the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and was informed that PPARC would indeed be supporting the programme, as they feel that the scientific benefit from this project will be outstanding. Having received this confirmation of backing from the highest level, Pauline has prepared two petitions for members to sign. They will be submitted to Sir David King and Lord Sainsbury to show our support for Britain being involved in this exciting endeavour. To add your name to the lists, please contact name-collector Pauline by 14th November.
  • SAG AGM. The Scottish Astronomers Group Annual General Meeting will take place on Saturday 19th November, and will be hosted by the Association of Falkirk Astronomers at the Old People’s Welfare Hall, Laurieston. None of the committee can go, so is there anybody else who would like to go and represent the Highlands Astronomical Society?  If you are interested, please let Pat Williams know.
  • Buy Things! This was the cry that greeted us as we walked into the auditorium on Tuesday night! Yes, Christmas is a coming and the Goose is getting wary, and along with Christmas comes the opportunity to bestow upon all your friends and relatives goodies bearing the Highlands Astronomical Society logo! Garments, mugs and pens make good prezzies, so if you are interested, and wish to see what’s available, please contact Pat Escott.
  • The Moon …it’s so Bright! But not always- sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. How do you know when it will be big and bright? Easy- buy a Moon-phase 2006 postcard, and simply look up the date. The card will show you what phase the Moon will be on that date, and you can decide whether you’ll be completing your Lunar 100 checklist that night or looking for M33 instead. 80p each. Bargain of the century. At least until 2007’s edition comes out. (Thanks to Antony for supplying these- Pauline)
  • A picture of Venus. The Planetary Society, in association with the European Space Agency, is holding an Art Competition. They invite youngsters (17 years and younger) and adults (18 and over) to imagine the surface of Venus from an above ground perspective- a Space-Bird’s eye view of the mysterious world. The finished work can be in any two-dimensional medium, including computer-generated art. Entries should be the size and shape of a postcard, 10cm by 15cm. For further information, head over to the Postcards From Venus page at the ESA’s website.
  • Farewell Andy. Unfortunately, Andy Ferguson has had to step down from the Society’s Committee. His place has been taken by Eric Walker, so farewell Andy, and thanks for all the work you put into the Society. Eric- welcome, and we have lots for you to do…!
  • Raffle + Quiz = Prizes! Yes, finally the waiting is over! We have been kept on tenterhooks since April, but at last Pauline has announced that the much-anticipated highlight of the society’s year- The QUIZ- will be held next month! As if that wasn’t enough, there will be a raffle too! With prizes! Oh it’s too much! We don’t deserve such joys. If I wake up now I’ll be really disappointed…
  • Short Courses. Pauline has some information booklets on the range of short courses being run by the Open University. The booklet provides basic information, as well as a freepost slip that you can send off to receive the 2005/2006 prospectuses.

2007. Maarten briefly told us about a meeting of the Highland 2007 Science Group that he and Pauline had attended. The meeting was about how to promote science in the Highlands while funding is still available for such projects. Some of the funding for our new observatory will be from the Highland 2007 programme, with the intention that it will be completed by 2007. During the discussions it was mentioned by one of those present that the Highlands Astronomical Society is well known, so it seems we are definitely now on the map!

Jeremy’s Moonfish. Regular readers of our website message board will be aware that Jeremy Rundle has purchased a new, slightly large, eyepiece. The Moonfish 30mm Ultra Wide has an apparent field of view of 80 degrees, and fits into 2” eyepiece holders and diagonals. It recently won acclaim in a round up of several low power wide field eyepieces in the November issue of Sky at Night magazine, where its superb value for money rating allowed it to score higher than other optically superior, but much more expensive, rivals. Jeremy had the eyepiece with him, and invited anyone interested in such things to have a good look at it. It is hefty, weighing just over one pound, and comes with a built in M49 camera adapter thread. For more details, check out Jeremy’s comments on the message board and the November issue of Sky at Night magazine. Was I impressed? Well, let’s just say I’m, looking forward to mine arriving soon!

Eyes on the Skies.

Right, I’ll make this quick, because there’s a sky out there that needs to be looked at. I need to go out and study Mars, because it’s still bright and high in the East, and there is plenty to see there. Take a look at our Mars Observing pages on the website for more information. After that I need to head north a bit, slot in a wide field eyepiece, and tour the three main open clusters in Auriga- M36, M37 and M38, although from left to right they are actually M37, M36 then M38! They are all quite different to look at and show different densities of stars, and hence different ages.

After that I need to hunt out the globular clusters recommended by Maarten, M13 and M92, both in Hercules. He described these as ‘classic globs’ (at least I think that’s what he said…) and so I really have to get round to them before they get too low in the northwest. Medium to high power eyepieces I think, and as much aperture as I can carry.

Once that’s done, I can fill some time cruising along the Milky Way, hopping from open cluster to open cluster, perhaps trying to spot some of the elusive dark patches of interstellar dust that obscure the light from the stars behind them.

That will be a great way to fill some time while I wait for Orion to climb higher over the horizon. It’ll be getting observable after 10pm-ish, so that’s not too late. And it’s definitely worth the wait to get the first view of M42 of the year. Then there’s the fabulous multiple star, Sigma Orionis, and I can’t leave Orion without having a go at splitting the eclipsing variable double star, Rigel. Rigel shines at magnitude 0.15, but its companion star is only magnitude 7, and is very close to Rigel, so good optics and a steady night will be needed. I’ve done it before, but that’s no excuse not to do it again.

Of course, if I’m out on the 12th November I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for any fireballs produced by the northern Taurid meteor storm. It’s not a particularly productive shower, peaking at about 5-10 meteors per hour, but it is known to produce the occasional spectacular fireball.

So you see, I’m way too busy to be sitting here telling you all what there is to see outside. I suggest you hop to it- I’m off!

The Main Event.

‘Star City’ by Maarten de Vries

Maarten de Vries should be well known to most of our members, having been a most enthusiastic member of the society for a number of years. Maarten is expert at all things technological and inter-webby, and is responsible for asking Plexus to redesign the Society’s website last year. As Chairman of the company Going Nova, he is helping to organise the Moray Science Festival. He is also pretty keen on globular clusters, as we were to find out…

Apart from viewing his favourite type of astronomical object, Maarten has obviously spent much time pondering the mysteries of globular clusters. He started off by showing us some beautiful images of some well-known examples, including M55 and M22 in Sagittarius, M3 in Canes Venatici, 47 Tuscanae in the Small Magellanic Cloud, and M13 in Hercules. These images, most of which were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, show what an incredible number of stars there are in these objects! The view of, for example M3, through a reasonable telescope will show a tight, bright core, with some stars at the edge of the core being resolvable. Pictures taken by Hubble are even better, as they show thousands of individual star images, tightly packed into a ball shape, with spaces between the stars easily visible.

Maarten shared some historical facts about ‘Globs’ in general, for example that in 1764 the famous comet-hunter Charles Messier was the first observer to actually resolve one of these objects, M4, calling it a ‘round nebula’. In 1918 Harlow Shapely used Globs to estimate the size of the galaxy, and our position in it. In 1987 the first ‘millisecond pulsar’ was discovered in globular cluster M4, and in 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope enabled the discovery of white dwarf stars within M4 to be made. The ‘millisecond pulsar’ was particularly exciting, as it marked the position of a Supernova that had occurred within a globular cluster, and reinforced the fact that globular clusters are distinct areas where star birth, evolution, and death are taking place all the time.

Despite his comment to the contrary, Maarten had obviously researched this talk very deeply. He explained that by using the Herzsprung-Russell diagram of star evolution, which plots the positions of stars on a graph of temperature against luminosity, we can see that the globular clusters are typically all around the same age, at about 13 billion years old. This places their formation at the very earliest times of the universe, and for a while it was thought that they may be older than anything that currently exists in the universe! The discovery of white dwarf stars within M4 by researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope has provided a very accurate way of age-dating the universe. The white dwarfs are the oldest stars now around, and are thought to be the burned-out remnants of some of the first stars formed.

Maarten then moved on to suggesting what it might be like to live on a planet inside one of these massive groups of stars, where the sky would be filled with Suns, and where concepts of ‘day’ and ‘night’ would be meaningless. Indeed, astronomy would be very different, as it might never occur to the inhabitants of such a planet that anything existed outside the globular cluster!

As Maarten discussed the possible evolution of these objects, he mentioned that one possible fate for a globular cluster could be a gradual and inexorable drawing together of the stars within it, which could result in them merging, collapsing, and forming a black hole. This is considered to be a possibility within the globular cluster M15 in Pegasus. He also mentioned that one planetary nebula is also known to reside in that cluster. As the next generation of Space Telescopes are launched, it is thought that more and more of these floating star cities will be discovered, providing us with more questions and, hopefully, some more answers too.


(Omega Centauri - Image credit and copyright Loke Kun Tan)

Maarten ended his fascinating and thought-provoking talk with a fantastic picture of the super globular cluster, Omega Centauri. So a big thank you to Maarten, but I’m left with one important question- does anyone know which globular cluster was used in the end credits for the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century?

Strathspey Binoculars. We were also fortunate enough to be joined by John Burns, the owner of binocular company Strathspey Binoculars. John had brought along several pairs of binoculars, ranging from 8x42 models to some giant-sized ones with apertures of 100mm. John explained that different models would suit different purposes, and showed that some binoculars would be ideally suited to astronomy, while others could be seen as more general purpose ones.

When we see a pair of binoculars with the numbers 10x50 on them, it means that they will magnify images 10 times, and that each objective (front) lens has an aperture of 50mm. The larger the aperture, the higher the light grasp, and the better the resolution of detail on the object under observation. Exit pupil was also explained, and is the ‘disc’ of light that is projected out of the eyepieces towards the eyes. This disc has a fixed diameter, which depends on the magnification and aperture of the binocular. So in a pair of 10x50s it would be 50 divided by 10, which equals 5mm. This is important to astronomers, as in the dark the eye’s pupil expands to allow more light to enter. This can be up to 7mm in young people, but as we age the diameter of our dilated pupils can decrease to about 4mm or 5mm. If the exit pupil of the binoculars is greater than the diameter of our dilated pupils, then some of the aperture of the binoculars will be wasted, as our eye will not receive the full image.

The different levels of optical coatings were explained too. Generally, the more layers of broadband coatings applied to the lenses, the less light scatter and reflection will be produced, and so the sharper and clearer the image will be. This is important to consider when we are selecting binoculars for viewing very faint objects situated several thousand light years away!

John demonstrated that it is useful, or even essential, to have binoculars mounted on a good tripod if you are using them for astronomy. He has a large range of binoculars, which are priced very reasonably, and is able to provide tripods and cases for them as well. His website is at Strathspey Binoculars, and is well worth a visit if you are considering buying a pair of binoculars for astronomy, general observation, hill walking or bird watching.

After the talks and the tea break, several of us went up to the observatory at Culloden to take a look at Mars through the 10” reflector there. The sky was very clear and the seeing was excellent. We had quite a crowd there to view surface features on Mars, and several other objects too. We would like to thank John Burns for taking along a couple of pairs of his big binoculars, including the massive 100mm ones, and allowing us to view the skies through them.


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